Sunday, December 12, 2010

Good Intentions, Side Effects, and What to Do with Them

Let me tell you about a personal awkward moment. I think I may have done some harm this week. Deep sigh. I really hope it’s not lasting. But you can imagine my frustration when I learned I had hurt the feelings of someone I care about. My intentions were good, but there were less than desirable side effects that followed my actions.

Reflecting on the last several days brought a second instance to mind. That troubled me. This isn’t the kind of thing I want to become a recurring theme. Then again, perhaps I’m better at creating side effects than I thought.

With the door wide open to my acknowledged faults, I wondered if there were other people I had affected inadvertently. My desire to know seemed to be an open invitation for examples from my memory. The unwelcomed intrusions did more than visit on the porch. They walked in the front door of my mind and brought company.

I sat in thought and began to count. One, two, five, eight…. While some examples were quite small, I recognized that a number of my choices this week had made someone else unhappy. Quickly feeling that the place where I house my thoughts was getting crowded, I closed the door on the line of applicants with comments for my suggestion box. One week’s time seemed like plenty to deal with.

The painful difficulty was that the examples were not anonymous strangers. They were people who are close to me – a brother, a friend, another friend, my wife, my daughter, and the list went on. Each one of them is a person I love very much.

As I considered my circumstance, I thought about a young Jesus who found himself in the middle of a similar predicament. At the age of twelve, he was found by his parents sitting in the temple with men who were listening to him and asking him questions. Mary and Joseph were distraught because they looked for Jesus for three days before finding him. When they asked him why he had dealt with them that way, he responded, “Wist ye not that I must be about my Father’s business?” (Luke 2:45-49) He intended to do good, and yet at the same time hurt those who were closest to him, causing them concern.

Less desirable side effects that follow good choices are not uncommon. While I may perceive a choice to be good, someone else may not. Choosing to have more family time may mean less of a favorite pastime for another family member. A decision to save money for a vacation may mean that some other budget gets cut. While discouraging to admit, I think this is just one of the many dilemmas we face as mortals. It’s hard to live without making a mess.

I don’t like negative side effects that smolder in the glow of hot embers. I would much rather repair the emotional distance and close the gap before it has the chance to experience continental drift. This often requires a change of perspective. While pondering how to mitigate the effects of my intentions this week, I remembered a significant conversation with my wife last summer. The outcome of that memory is what we refer to as the 1700 North principle. That happened to be our location when we made an important discovery.

Liz and I had gone for a morning walk and began to discuss a difference of opinion we shared. We simply didn’t agree. In spite of a beautiful sunrise, it felt like the day might be drawing to a close. I felt frustrated and so did she.

Our conversation more closely resembled a familiar tennis match. While we could see the thin net that divided us, and we anticipated where the ball would fall next, we didn’t quite see each other. The score was tied, but neither of us wanted to win at the defeat of the other. We just wanted to end the game. It was time for a different strategy.

You know, it’s hard to return a volley if both players are on the same side of the net. That’s a move that doesn’t make much sense if you like tennis. We found the strategy helps a lot when you care about a person more than you care about the game.

My next move started by admitting my faults and acknowledging how my choices affected my wife. That wasn’t easy to say out loud, but it felt necessary. With my guard down, it was easier for her to drop hers. Next, I expressed my intent in what I had hoped to accomplish, and I asked for forgiveness. Then I listened. I listened as she did the same thing, and the morning became much more enjoyable.

Each of us took down the fences we had built around our perceptions. For the first time that morning we considered each other’s feelings. That seemed to be the key to ending the game, and it worked. We didn’t change each other’s minds, but we figured out a simple way to navigate less desirable side effects from decisions we each thought were good. We worked through it.

The 1700 North principle has been very helpful to me when I find I’ve hurt someone’s feelings. As hard as it was, and as simple as it sounds, seeing was a matter of choice. I may not always be able to control how my decisions affect another person, but I can choose to reduce the gap by changing my vantage point. If I am going to have a recurring theme at the end of the week, I would rather be consistent in considering the feelings of others from the same side of the net.

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